5 Mistakes That Are Fatal to Your Storytelling
Over the years, I've been fortunate enough to conduct workshops in countries across the world. Regardless of where I find myself, there is one thing that they all have in common.
As soon as the workshop is done for the day, there's at least a handful of people who have a clip pulled up on their phone or laptop and are hoping to get some 1-on-1 feedback.
Making time is the easy part. The challenge is finding a new way to say the same thing over and over again. You quickly start to notice that there is a pattern in the feedback. I've long wanted to put together a list of the most common mistakes we've seen from filmmakers across the globe (and we've certainly made all of these many times over as well).
Here are the top 5 mistakes we've seen from filmmakers worldwide.
Mistake # 1. Having Way Too Many Characters
If you've got a piece that is less than 5 minutes and you're trying to have more than 3 characters, you're likely struggling with this one.
Now, by characters we mean a person in your film who is more than just background. You might have scenes with a host of people, but if we don't spend any time or get to know any of the others, then they aren't characters.
If, however, you're interviewing a handful of people and trying to fit in lines from each one of them, then you're likely falling victim to this major mistake.
As your story gets longer, you have more room to bring in more characters and develop them for the audience. Feature films, as an example, often have a cast of characters and we get to know several of them.
Why is this so bad?
Well, in short, if you have too many people in your story, it's much harder for the audience to form a real connection with any of them.
Here's another way to think about it: Imagine you go to a friend's party and stay for a couple hours. You spend that whole time moving through the room, trying to meet as many people as you can, not wanting to offend anybody you don't say hi to. By the time you leave, you find that you spent only a couple of minutes with each person there.
How many deep and meaningful conversations do you think you'd have? Or, in story language, how many characters would you really get to know and form a connection with?
Now imagine you spend the whole two hours with just one or two people. There is a good chance you'd really get to know somebody and form a much deeper and more lasting connection.
The same is true of your story: If you want your audience to really connect emotionally, you need to give them the time to get to know your main character(s), and having too many people often gets in the way of that.
Take the time to develop one main character for every story, what we here at Muse call the Heart. By finding one strong character and allowing your audience to get to know them, you've just skyrocketed your chances that your story will be felt.
You can have more than one character, sure, but take the time to define the Heart, and ensure that you find ways to develop them as a character for your audience.
Mistake # 2. No Defined Purpose or Objective
You should be able to look at any piece you're creating and very clearly and quickly answer the question, "Why am I creating this?"
Why? Well if you don't understand the objective behind a piece of content, what do you think the chances are that you'll achieve it (once it's uncovered)?
Why is this so bad?
Having no clearly defined purpose or objective is a sure way to find yourself smack dab in the middle of endless client revisions wondering how the heck you can just wrap this up.
This objective can certainly be commercial in nature. Many times it is, and you don't have to feel like you have the wrong answer just because the objective isn't some noble cause. Finding leads, creating sales, encouraging donations, or getting views are all common objectives your client may have for a piece of content.
Before you start developing or, even worse, presenting creative and ideas to the client, take the time to both clearly define the objective and get your client to agree on it.
Within Muse, we recommend using a series of Keywords as a tangible way of defining this purpose. It's a powerful way to break complex ideas into single words, and allows you to capture a variety of objectives such as the style, tone, and actions desired. If you're interested in learning more about this, we broke the whole Keywording process down in this post.
If you're interested in learning more about this, we broke the whole Keywording process down in this post.
Mistake # 3. Poor or Non-Existent Story Structure
Imagine walking down the street and asking somebody at random to take a moment and watch your latest video.
Put yourself in that position: Do you think they would want to finish the whole thing? Or would they get bored well before the ending?
If we're honest, even if our content lands well with our client, it's far too common that it fails to pull in a significant amount of other viewership. It's also important to realize that it is FAR easier for your client to like what you created — that's not a true test of your story's strength — because the client is inherently far more connected to their own content well before you hit play.
A strong story can engage a much broader audience.
Why is this a problem?
Well, your story's structure is what determines how engaged your audience is. And if you're not taking the time to ensure that your structure is airtight, then most people won't make it all the way through.
And one of the only things worse than living in a land of endless client revisions is to make a piece that nobody wants to watch. Of course, you can make work for yourself and it doesn't need to appeal to others. If that's your goal, then awesome. But in most cases, for most people, we create as a way of expressing ourselves and our ideas to others.
This one isn't nearly as easy to solve. The real solution is to take the time to deeply understand what plot is, how it functions, and the critical decisions you need to make with every story you tell.
I spent a good seven years of my filmmaking career not really having a clear idea of how to craft an engaging plot. Truly understanding story structure was a turning point in my career. We'll dive even more into the solution here with our next mistake.
Mistake # 4. Having Little to No Conflict.
Pick any hit television show, best-selling book, Hollywood film, or top documentary, and guess what they will all have in common?
They embrace conflict.
We often feel like conflict is a bad word, something that should be avoided. But the truth is, avoiding conflict within your story is one of the best ways to bore your audience.
Why is this a problem?
Conflict is the fuel that propels your story; it's foundational in building your plot. As humans, we're wired to pay attention to conflict. It grabs our attention and engages us right away. Second, it creates a question that the audience wants answered.
And third, conflict gives our character something to overcome, and it is that challenge that can lead to change and growth. This is where we, as the audience, have so much opportunity to take something away from the story.
Don't believe me that conflict is so important?
Here's a little experiment you can try right now: Go find a friend and try and tell them a story from your past, something more than two minutes long, and ensure it has no conflict. Share the story and then ask how engaging it was. If your friend is a good one, they'll likely say they cared because it was you, but the story itself wasn't all that good.
Try the same thing again, but this time insert some conflict. If you're paying attention, you'll notice an immediate difference in their engagement.
Conflict gives your story a direction. It engages your audience and gives them a question they want to see answered.
Well, this one is rather obvious, yet far harder to actually implement.
Take the time as you develop your story to listen to the different types of conflicts that are naturally there. We are in no way suggesting that you artificially add conflict (ever wonder why reality television can work so well?).
Documentaries often seek to explore a conflict and present multiple perspectives on it. Commercial films are on businesses and products that, if they're a good one, solve problems for people. A problem is just another word for conflict. And nonprofits live in a world of conflict.
Mistake # 5. Embracing Style Over Substance.
Ask ten creatives how important the story is, and I'd bet that ten of them would say something to the effect of "story matters most."
It's a truism that the story is the most important element. However, we often don't take the time to truly honor the story.
Here's the critical insight: We're often bored or disengaged from our work because the story is weak. Rather than looking inward and trying to develop a stronger story, we often look for ways to make it look sexier. We pull out the drone, slap on some fancy color grading, or look to one of the latest trends as a ploy to pull the viewer (and yourself) in.
Why is this a problem?
Every heard the story of the boy who cried wolf?
It's a fable about a kid who runs around town yelling that a wolf is coming just to get a reaction out of people. It works at first, of course, but over time people stop paying attention. When the wolf finally does come, the boy cries wolf and nobody is there.
If you're embracing elements that don't serve your story, then you're crying wolf. You're trying to put something flashy out there to get a reaction. Yet when you actually need to embrace that tool or technique in a way that serves the story, guess what? It will no longer have an impact.
Everything either adds to your story, or takes away from it. There is no in-between. Pushing elements that don't serve the story are actually taking away from whatever story is hidden beneath.
Resist the urge to chase the glitter. Whether it be a character, a place, or a plot point, push yourself to ask why every element needs to be there. When you don't have a clear answer, it's time to consider cutting.